Posts Tagged ‘Clay Jones’

My recent adventure in Christian apologetics

November 9, 2017

In response to Tuesday’s blog post, which I shared on Facebook, I had an interesting exchange with Cory Markum, an atheist blogger and podcaster whom I first heard on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio show. I blogged about that episode last year, and he “friended” me on Facebook.

He began with the following reply:

That’s great, but if [God] exists, he should have stopped the shooting instead of sitting idly by. If anyone else knew that something like that was going to happen and had the capacity to stop it, but didn’t, then we would all conclude that they are culpable for failing to act. I see no good reason to give God a pass, so the fact that God didn’t do anything to stop it, in my eyes, constitutes strong evidence that such a being doesn’t exist.

To which I wrote the following:

I see no reason to give God a pass, either, Cory. But I trust that God knows better than we do the myriad consequences of his intervening to stop what one of his free creatures chooses to do. Obviously, if God were in the business of intervening every time one of his creatures chooses to do something harmful, we would no longer be free, nor would we live in a universe governed by predictable laws. And God knows it wouldn’t be good for us to never suffer consequences of free choices.

But if you read my post, you know that we Christians believe in heaven. This is not pie in the sky to us; this is an essential part of how God balances the scales of justice and redeems suffering. Whatever happens in this world is a “light momentary affliction,” as the apostle says, in comparison to eternity. I know you don’t believe that, but I wish you did.

He replied:

I wish I did too, man. I’m extremely envious of those who are able to.

I’m curious…do you believe that we (or more accurately, you) will have freedom of this sort in heaven? If so, and if heaven is a place free of evil, doesn’t this show that it is possible for there to be free creatures and yet, no evil? And if such a state of affairs is possible, doesn’t it follow that a perfectly good being would opt for that world, rather than the one we have?

Notice here that Markum raises precisely the objection that Christian apologist Clay Jones discusses in his recent book Why Does God Allow Evil?: If heaven is a world in which free will and sinless perfection coexist, why couldn’t God have created this world to begin with—and spare us the pain and suffering? Markum continued: Read the rest of this entry »

How do we not sin in heaven?

November 1, 2017

In Christian apologetics, one pressing question is theodicy: How do we reconcile God’s love and goodness with the existence of evil? One important part of the answer to this question, for most apologists, is free will: just as Adam and Eve were free to break God’s law and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so we are free to choose evil over good. And we do. Often.

Who could argue that the vast majority of evil in the world isn’t man-made?

But “free will” isn’t close to telling the whole story of evil in the world. For one thing, our free will is itself so corrupted by sin—into which and with which we’re born—that choosing not to sin is impossible. Left to our own devices, apart from grace, our will is in bondage. This is why, for example, we Wesleyan-Arminians speak of God’s “prevenient” grace: we need the work of the Holy Spirit to enable us to make a free choice to accept Christ as Savior and Lord. This choice, we believe, isn’t determined by God but is made possible by God. Before we can be saved, in other words, our will has to be set free.

Despite how some Calvinist opponents of Arminianism frame it, we don’t advocate for “free will” so much as freed will. There’s a world of difference between the two.

Still, I recognize that “free will” arguments would not be persuasive to any Calvinist who holds his convictions with perfect consistency. This post isn’t for them, unless they believe, as I do, that we will possess free will in heaven.

But how could we, since heaven is a place without sin? If we can’t be free on earth without sinning, how can we be free in heaven without sinning? In this world, after all, sin seems unavoidable. How will it not be in the next? If we sin in heaven, how can we remain in heaven? On the other hand, if God prevents sin in heaven by overriding our free will, why didn’t he do this on earth—and spare us all the pain and suffering?

Do you see the problem? Many skeptics do.

Clay Jones answers these questions in his book Why Does God Allow Evil? In fact, Dr. Jones argues that one important reason for evil in this world is to teach us the folly of sin. Every time we sin—and suffer its consequences—we are learning how stupid sin is. (“Stupid” is his word.) I can gladly testify that this experience is an effective teacher!

But there are many other reasons that we won’t sin. First, our bodies will be perfect, and we’ll all—equally—have everything we need. How much of our greed, lust, anger, and envy come from a sense that we don’t possess what we need—and that someone else does? Imagine perfect satisfaction and perfect contentment in Christ for all eternity. As Jones writes,

In Kingdom Come, there won’t be any forbidden fruit. Presumably we will be able to eat as much as we desire—we won’t get fat as we’ll have spiritual bodies like Jesus had—and there will be no lack so there won’t be a fight over the last chunk of chocolate cake. In Kingdom Come the lust of the eyes won’t be an issue either, because we are all inheriting the kingdom. As Jesus said in Luke 12:32, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” He’s not just letting us visit the kingdom—which would be awesome in itself—He’s giving the kingdom to us. It’s not like some of us will have beachfront property while others are stuck in a slum. Mark Twain’s advice, “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore,” will be irrelevant. All of us will be coheirs in the kingdom.[1]

We’ll also be free from the destructive influence of Satan and rebellious humans. It’s hard to underrate how important their influence is in our choosing to sin:

Consider that many, if not most, of the temptations to sin come from sinful humans acting out their sinfulness. Adultery and fornication take at least two people, after all. Also, someone has to pose for porn, someone else takes the pictures, someone else distributes them, and so on. People produce media that makes us lust after people, positions, possessions, and pleasures, and they cause us to have wrong views about that which really matters. In the kingdom, we won’t have to respond to lies or to gossip or to the seducer. They will be no more.[2]

Jones even argues that the ongoing existence of hell will be a sober reminder of the “folly of rebellion.”

There’s more: just as our experience with evil in this world teaches us not to sin, our experience in Final Judgment will do the same:

What we didn’t learn about the horror of sin in this life will be declared to everyone at the judgment. Every evil intent and rank rebellion, even those cloaked with goodness will be exposed for exactly what it is to all the redeemed and angels. They will be unmistakable because the judgment will reveal them for what they really are.

But this education isn’t limited to God’s judgment of us, but our judgment of others. As Jones explains,

In 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, we learn that Christians will judge men and angels, so it isn’t as if we won’t have to attend the judgment of other beings, whether angelic or human. We’ll not only be attending, we’ll be participating in the entire judgment. And what information will come out at the judgment? Everything. Jesus said in Matthew 12:36 that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” Not only will intentionally hurtful words be judged, but even careless words.[3]

Of course, from scripture such as Romans 2:16, 1 Corinthians 4:5, Hebrews 4:13, and Revelation 20:11-15, secret and hidden sins will also be disclosed and judged. Jones even estimates that the judgment of everyone who ever lived will take hundreds of thousands of years—so there’s a lot of time for education! While estimating time in this manner seems highly speculative, his point is a good one: We will have ample opportunities to learn about the folly of sin.

Finally, what Jones refers to as “epistemic distance between us and God” will be eliminated.[4] Faith will become sight. “We will know fully, even as we are fully known.”

With all of this in mind, Jones argues, the temptation to sin in heaven will seem as appealing as stabbing a pen in your eye. There is no scenario I can imagine in which I would ever be tempted to do that. Can you imagine temptation to sin being as resistible as that? We can look forward to that day!

1. Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 147-8.

2. Ibid., 149

3. Ibid., 153.

4. Ibid., 155-6.

Are people in hell repentant?

October 19, 2017

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on the parables of Jesus in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. A few weeks ago, we looked at the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31.

Recently some Bible scholars and theologians have rejected the depiction of hell in this parable. The parable isn’t about hell, they say. Jesus was merely adapting a well-known (at the time) Jewish folk tale to make a theological point about something other than perdition.

That may be true for all I know, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ words about hell aren’t truthful.

After all, Jesus didn’t tell us the Parable of the Good Samaritan in order to describe the highway connecting Jerusalem with Jericho, but the road that he describes certainly existed! With its twists and turns, it afforded many hiding places for brigands to rob passersby, as they do in the parable. Even though the highway isn’t the point of the parable, the setting is a real place, and Jesus describes it accurately.

My point is, I believe we can learn a lot about hell from this parable.

In my Bible study, we discussed whether the rich man was truly repentant. After all, instead of begging forgiveness of the poor beggar, Lazarus, whom the rich man mistreated throughout his life, he instead wanted him to leave his place of comfort to fetch him water—even through the flames—and warn his brothers of their fate.

Even in hell, it seems, the rich man still wanted to treat Lazarus with condescension or contempt, just as he did in the world.

But there’s another clue that the rich man remained unrepentant, as Clay Jones points out in a chapter called “How Can Eternal Punishment Be Fair” in his recent book Why Does God Allow Evil?

Further, the rich man’s suggestion that his brothers needed to be warned betrays a lack of repentance because it implies that he ended up in hell because God didn’t provide him with sufficient warning. Finally, the rich man disagreed with Abraham’s assertions hat the Law of Moses was sufficient evidence to lead his brothers into repentance. As R.C. Trench says, the rich man’s “contempt of God’s word,” which he showed on earth, follows him “beyond the grave.” Ironically, Lazarus was the name of a man who did come back from the dead [See John 11], and the chief priests responded to this resurrection by trying to kill both Jesus and the resurrected Lazarus (John 12:9-10)![1]

Why is lack of repentance important? One of the biggest fears that we Christians have about hell is that people who go there will realize immediately that they were wrong, will want to repent, but will be unable to. In at least a couple of his apologetic works, The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis argues against this idea, saying that the doors of hell are “locked from the inside.” In other words, in some twisted way the people who are in hell will want to be there—at least more than they’ll want the alternative, which would involve their humbling themselves before their Creator and repenting.

I’ve always hoped that Lewis was right about this. Whether he is or not, I have no doubt that God will be perfectly just. But until I read Dr. Jones’s book, I had never considered the biblical evidence for Lewis’s point of view.

1. Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 100.

Sermon 10-08-17: “God and Tragedies”

October 12, 2017

I preached the following sermon one week after the tragic events in Las Vegas, in which a gunman killed at least 58 people. How do we make sense of this kind of evil and suffering light of our Christian faith? Jesus shows us how.

Sermon Text: Luke 13:1-9

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

A couple of days ago, Gary Chitwood nearly electrocuted himself—through no fault of his own—so what I’m about to say may hit too close to home for him. I don’t mean to be insensitive.

But back in the early-’60s, a psychologist from Yale named Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments involving shock treatment—or at least that’s what his test subjects thought. Back then, the world was still recovering from the evil of Hitler and the Nazis, and the purpose of Milgram’s experiment was to see just what kind of person would commit the atrocities carried out by Nazi Germany—what kind of person would participate in genocide—and under what circumstances.

So, in this experiment, Milgram told his test subjects that he was conducting an experiment related to learning. A “student” was in the other room, strapped to a chair, with electrodes attached to him. The test subjects, meanwhile, were told that they were to be the “teacher.” The person in the other room was asked specific questions, and every time he got an answer wrong, the so-called “teacher,” the test subject, was supposed to administer a shock to the person. The test subject had in front of him a shock generator with thirty switches labeled from 15 volts to 450 volts—with words ranging from “Slight Shock” to “Danger—Severe Shock.” The 450V switch was simply labeled “XXX.” Read the rest of this entry »

Why isn’t God’s presence more obvious?

October 6, 2017

In light of this week’s tragedy in Las Vegas, I’m preaching a one-shot sermon this Sunday called “Where Is God in the Midst of Tragedies.” My text is Luke 13:1-9. In my view, this scripture is Jesus’ most important word on evil and suffering. At the very least, it speaks directly to modern objections to God’s existence based on the “moral problem” of evil. I preached what I’m sure was a theologically and biblically inadequate sermon on this text back in 2010. I’m almost afraid to re-read it now!

Still, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, I’m currently reading Clay Jones’s Why Does God Allow Evil. Among other things, he expands on ideas he debated on an outstanding Unbelievable? podcast in 2015. I admire the forcefulness and clarity with which he approaches a subject that most of us only approach with great caution. Perhaps he’s fearless because, as he says in the book’s introduction, when we understand who we are as sinful human beings, the so-called “problem of evil” vanishes. After all, no one asks, “Why do bad things happen to bad people?”

I don’t disagree with him.

In fact, I’ve been blogging for a while about how ill-equipped most contemporary Methodists are in dealing with questions of human or natural evil. Remember this official UMC article on the recent hurricanes? Most Methodist thinkers say something inadequate like, “We don’t know why there’s evil, but God is with us!”

Regardless, one nagging apologetic concern I have struggled with more recently is the apparent “hiddenness” of God. Why does God not make his presence more obvious to people whom he otherwise wants to save?

Dr. Jones tackles this question nicely:

If God wants us to be significantly free (know the kind of freedom we now possess), then God can’t make His presence too apparent; He can’t make His presence too “saturated.” His presence in the world is not smothering, like an overbearing parent. He is not an ever-present “helicopter God” (philosophers call this epistemic distance or divine hiddenness). This is so because if God’s existence were at every moment absolutely unmistakable, then many people would abstain from desires that they might otherwise indulge. As C.S. Lewis put it, “there must perhaps always be just enough lack of demonstrative certainty to make free choice possible: for what could we do but accept if the faith were like the multiplication table?” In other words, if Christianity were unmistakably true, then people would have less free will and they would be compelled to feign loyalty. For example, I’ve asked guys, “If you were getting up to speak at a podium, and there were cameras on you, and an audience watching you, and if there were a pornographic magazine on the podium, would you open it or even look down at the cover?” Of course the answer is always no. Why? Because they know that everyone is watching them! Similarly, God could make His presence and His power so evident that everyone would always do the right thing—whether they wanted to or not. But that would interfere with our acting freely.[†]

What would be wrong if the truth of God and his gospel were as obvious to us as the multiplication table? After all, we would know that God exists. We would know that the doctrines of Christianity are true. We would, in a sense, “believe in” Jesus.

But this wouldn’t be true faith. As I said in my recent sermon, “Dead Faith Can’t Save Us,” genuine faith is not merely knowing facts about God; it’s not agreeing to a set of propositions. It’s also entrusting ourselves to God—out of love for him and gratitude to him. It’s being loyal to him. Without this “epistemic distance,” as Jones says, we would “feign loyalty.” True faith may never take root and grow.

So without God’s “hiddenness,” the vast majority of people would believe in God, but they wouldn’t have faith in God. There’s a big difference!

Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 112.

God wants us to choose him, not feign loyalty

August 17, 2016

Last year, I praised Clay Jones, a professor at Biola University, for an informal debate he had with atheist philosopher Richard Norman on the Unbelievable! radio show and podcast. As he said then, he believes that we Christians can offer much more in response to difficult questions about why God allows evil and suffering than “It’s a mystery.”

By contrast, at the mainline Protestant seminary I attended, we were only ever supposed to appeal to mystery and paradox in response to any difficult question. No wonder I find Dr. Jones’s clarity so refreshing.

In this new essay, he tackles one of the most difficult questions of all: Why does God allow children to suffer and die?

While urging humility, he offers three reasons:

First, children suffer and die due to pestilence and disease enabled when the Lord cursed the ground after Adam and Eve sinned. He banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, thus barring humans from the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life. God warned Adam and Eve that if they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17), and He didn’t add “at a ripe old age of natural causes.” He just said, “You will surely die,” and we’ve been attending funerals ever since. Second, children also suffer and die because of the mistakes and sins of others, such as leaving a pool gate unsecured, drunk driving, murder, and so on. Third, children suffer and die because natural laws work in regular ways: the gravity that keeps us on planet Earth also enables fatal falls; the fire that warms also burns; the water in which we swim can also drown.

If you’re still unconvinced, he challenges us to consider alternatives: What kind of universe would we live in if this weren’t the case?

His answer is a universe in which miracles happen frequently. God would be constantly intervening to protect us from ourselves and others. We would no longer be free. He quotes Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne:

If God is to allow us to acquire knowledge by learning from experience and above all to allow us to choose whether to acquire knowledge at all or even to allow us to have a very well-justified knowledge of the consequences of our actions—knowledge which we need if we are to have a free and efficacious choice between good and bad—he needs to provide natural evils occurring in regular ways in consequence of natural processes. Or rather, he needs to do this if he is not to give us too evident an awareness of his presence.

Did you catch that last sentence? What’s wrong with God’s giving us “too evident an awareness of his presence”?

It’s not that God doesn’t want everyone to come to saving knowledge of him through his Son Jesus (1 Timothy 2:4); it’s that he wants us to freely choose him. As Jones writes, God “gives enough evidence of His existence so that those who want to believe will have their beliefs justified, but not so much evidence that those who don’t want to believe will be forced to feign loyalty.”

Christian apologists spend a lot of time justifying belief in God’s existence. I do that, too. But God doesn’t want us merely to believe he exists, that he possesses certain attributes, or even that he came into the world through Jesus. As James says, “You believe in one God. Good! Even the demons belief and shudder.”

No, God wants us to love and trust him. God knows that faith is the best vehicle for this love and trust.

As Jones writes, “Because the Lord doesn’t want to interfere with our free will, He gives enough evidence of His existence so that those who want to believe will have their beliefs justified, but not so much evidence that those who don’t want to believe will be forced to feign loyalty.”

Why does God allow evil? It’s not a mystery

April 28, 2015
Clay Jones debates the problem of evil and suffering.

Clay Jones debates the problem of evil and suffering.

Fresh on the heels of yesterday’s widely read and discussed post about The Issue, which came by way of a debate on the Unbelievable? podcast, is this timely debate on evil and suffering, between Clay Jones, a professor of apologetics at Biola University, and atheist philosopher Richard Norman.

The discussion begins with Norman’s conceding that the logical problem of evil doesn’t hold. The logical problem, popularly formulated by David Hume, is this: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

No, Norman agrees that if God has good reasons for permitting evil—in spite of God’s goodness and power—then there is no logical problem. But, he says, the only justification that a Christian can give for those reasons is to appeal to mystery: we trust that reasons exist, but we don’t or can’t know what they are.

This appeal to mystery is very popular in mainline Protestant seminary: “Don’t even go there,” we’re told. “Don’t even try to explain evil and suffering. It’s all a mystery.”

Oh, please! I am weary of these platitudes. Aren’t you? We don’t want to be glib about it. But we can articulate some reasons, in general, for evil and suffering, even if we can’t say with certainty why God allows a particular instance of evil and suffering. While there are many things we can’t know about evil and suffering, this isn’t to say it’s a mystery as to why God allows them in the first place.

Be that as it may, in his defense of God’s goodness and power, Clay Jones doesn’t appeal to mystery:

We know why God allows evil. The Bible tells us, and I’m going to be presenting the biblical case for why God allows evil. But some listeners… may go, “Well, I don’t agree with the things taught in the Bible.” I understand that, but that’s an entirely different debate. If you want to know why the Christian thinks God is right to allow the evils he allows, then the Christian is going to have to appeal to the Bible. And the fact the skeptic doesn’t agree with that explanation isn’t relevant. They say, “Yeah, but I don’t agree with the Bible.” But that’s not the point. The Christian isn’t trying to defend a God the skeptic will agree with.

To convince the skeptic that the Bible is right about the God revealed therein is a different task, he says.

Here are Jones’s seven reasons that God allows evil:

  1. “God chose to create beings with free will. And it is impossible even for God to create free beings without allowing those free beings to use their free will wrongly.”
  2. God created humans with free will, warned them that death would follow as a consequence of using their free will wrongly. When they did so, God cursed the ground, enabling all kinds of pestilence, and then removed their access to the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life, “and we’ve been attending funerals ever since.”
  3. “Natural” evil—tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, cancers, etc.—is largely a result of living in a cursed world.
  4. Although God could intervene regularly to stop suffering, he wants humans to learn the consequences of rebellion and their own actions, which is life without his constant protection.
  5. Natural laws must work in regular ways if our actions are to mean anything at all.
  6. “The knowledge we are learning about the consequences of rebellion against God is preparing us to be fit citizens of God’s kingdom—where we’re going to have free will, but choose not to sin because we’ve learned that sin here is stupid.”
  7. “Those who learned that rebellion is stupid and trust Jesus will be given eternal life, and that eternal life—very important point—will dwarf our sufferings to insignificance.”

He goes on to caution that he would normally spend 24 hours unpacking each of these points.

I largely agree with each of these. I would emphasize in points 2 and 3, however, that the creation of free beings capable of rebelling against God extends to the spiritual realm, where free angelic beings also chose to sin. They have a causal relationship to natural evil in our world—even if we can’t say with certainty what that relationship is.

I also wonder to what extent so-called “natural evil” existed from the beginning—with the understanding that we humans ascribe “evil” to an otherwise neutral, natural event—and humanity’s expulsion from the Garden meant that they were now exposed to what was already in Creation.

In other words, could it be that life outside the Garden was always harsh, and the Fall meant that Adam and Eve were no longer protected from this harsh reality? If humankind had remained in a perfect relationship with God, God would have ensured that they not be caught within the path of a tornado, for example—not that the tornado didn’t exist. Do you see the difference? This is all speculative, of course, and it doesn’t matter for Jones’s argument.

Most of the debate centered on points 1, 4, and 5, which form the heart of the “free will defense.” Norman conceded that, to some extent, God couldn’t create beings with free will who couldn’t be free to misuse that freedom. Nevertheless, why couldn’t a benevolent and all-powerful God create a world in which my misuse of free will wouldn’t cause the suffering of others? Why not simply allow my sin to affect me and not others?

For one thing, Jones said, if we possess love for others, then other people’s suffering—even if they bring it on themselves—would cause suffering for the people who love them.

For another, if God intervened every time one person’s actions would harm someone else, God would be intervening in our world literally millions of times a day. What then becomes of a world governed by predictable natural laws? Point 5 would go out the window.

Yes, Norman said, but Jones was still thinking about life in this world. Couldn’t an omnipotent God have created another kind of world in which we don’t suffer consequences from other people’s evil actions?

When Jones challenged him to explain what that world would look like, or how it could be different from ours, Norman said that wasn’t his problem: he isn’t an omnipotent God. But there’s no logical reason why God couldn’t make such a world happen.

Perhaps, Jones said, but it couldn’t be world in which we are as free as we are in this one. And God wanted us to be as free as we are in this world. Even Norman conceded the point.

Jones’s defense is nothing short of brilliant. Listen for yourself, and I think you’ll agree.